Aceh in Wonderland

28 Jun 2005
Aguswandi, TAPOL
Appeared in: 

Is Aceh being turned into the world of Alice in Wonderland? There is a British novel called Alice in Wonderland. A young girl called Alice, falls into a hole and enters a world full of confusion and absurdity. Everything is turned upside down and Alice is trapped to deal with too many pictures of small things, unable to focus on the world beyond. Are the Acehnese to be driven to this kind of existence?

Last week in Aceh several poor Acehnese, accused and found guilty of gambling under sharia (Islamic) law, were publicly flogged with canes by a government appointed executor. It is the first application of sharia since its imposition several years ago.

This is an absurdity; never in the history of Aceh has Islam been exploited in this way, simply to punish the poor. In the past Islam was the foundation and inspiration for the Acehnese to defend themselves against colonialism, social injustice and oppression.

Islamic values informed the fight against Portuguese oppression, which stopped their colonial expansion in Asia, and galvanised the Acehnese to defend themselves against Dutch invasion. The resilience of the Acehnese effectively bankrupted and thus defeated the Dutch. These values went on to imbue many Acehnese with the will to oppose injustice in the post colonial era. It was non conservative values of Islam, a desire for equality and justice that motivated the Acehnese to seek freedom from any and all attempts to conquer them.

But now we have some Ulamas empowered by the government using religious law to punish some people who commit petty crime, such as gambling, and enforcing disproportionate penalties. Gambling, if it is a crime at least only harms the gamblers, at worst their families. The conflict region of Aceh is full of groups and individuals harming the wider society, committing crimes that perpetuate conflict and exploitation. The crimes of the powerful; the killing of innocent civilians or involvement in large scale corruption seem to elicit a different response than the crimes of poor. When the rich and powerful seem immune from judicial action, even under sharia law, while the poor Acehnese are subject to all the extremes of this religious law it only serves to institutionalise inequality.

There was a question posed on the internet, circulated by some young Acehnese, asking jokingly how many times Abdullah Puted would be caned if this law were to be applied to him. How about if this law was applied to those who are killing Acehnese civilians? No, it will not apply to them said Sharia authority. In fact it will not even be applied to the prosecutor who is making the case in this first trial of Sharia, who had admitted he received money as a bribe, from the defendant.

Indeed it is only for the poor, the powerless amongst the Acehnese to bear the brunt of this newly emboldened Sharia authority. The other weak Acehnese targeted are women, the most vulnerable groups of society in Aceh right now. The police sharia, the government discussion about women, instead of being about education and equal rights for women, is about clothes, the headscarf, the way they wear things. There have occasionally been sweeps by sharia police to check whether Acehnese women are wearing their clothes according to sharia. There is a story that recently at a meeting of local government officials, woman was made to sit at the back of the room. All this comes at a time when the women of Aceh are calling for equality, access to education and a voice in the reconstruction.

This is an insult to Acehnese women who in the past have asserted their will to play a significant role in society. To cite a few obvious examples, three women have ruled the kingdom of Aceh, there have been several female admirals and high ranking members of armed forces. Most famously Cut Nyak Dhien but there was also Cut Meutia, Pocut Baren and others. There has been no such discussion about dress codes in the past, yet both Islam and women’s involvement in the wider society have managed to flourish.

By emphasising conservative aspects of religion and strict adherence to sharia law, some clerical leaders seek to blinker the Acehnese from wider problems in the region. They are exploiting the religious conviction of many Acehnese to manipulate them. In truth they are acting as an obstacle to change by distracting the locals from the main problem of injustice. This orchestrated distraction is perfect for a government which seeks to neutralize progressive voices in Aceh. This is a strategic alliance of the government with conservative religious to pacify the Acehnese.

If there is somebody most responsible for this, it is Abdurahman Wahid. It was Gus Dur the most liberal of Islamic thinkers who kick-started this new Sharia revolution. He decided to impose sharia law in order to show the political will of the government to solve the problem of Aceh. Rather than responding to Acehnese demands for a political solution to the conflict and social justice, this was a crude attempt to co-opt and empower a conservative religious elite to assist with the subjugation of the Acehnese desire for justice.

This use of religion as political tool to pacify the population or as political bribery is a dangerous move. It is like setting a time bomb. When it goes off it could unleash an era of harsh, intolerant and conservative Islam. It is the last thing everybody wants to happen in Aceh.

Tagged: Aceh